Review by Greg Maki
This is the Dream Theater I know and love.
Well, sort of.
Following the divisive concept album “The Astonishing” (2016), the progressive metal titans’ 14th studio album brings back the heavy in a big way, but—perhaps as a counterpoint to the sprawling, two-hour-plus “Astonishing”—it’s the most concise, song-based record of the band’s career. Not counting the bonus track, it’s the first Dream Theater album since “Images and Words” (1992) to clock in at less than 60 minutes. Three songs on the album proper even come in under five minutes. Gasp!
But fear not, my virtuoso-loving friends. The heightened focus seemingly has sharpened the band on all fronts. The playing from everyone—guitarist John Petrucci, keyboardist Jordan Rudess, bassist John Myung, drummer Mike Mangini—is as godlike as ever, and there still are a fair share of proggy detours and excursions. It just all exists within a tighter framework than we’ve come to expect, giving greater emphasis to melody and vocal hooks, and Petrucci’s metal-as-hell riffs, in place of endless shredding and solos—not that I’m opposed to endless shredding and solos, especially from Dream Theater, but it’s an effective change of pace.
With songs topping seven (“Fall into the Light”), eight (“Pale Blue Dot”) and nine (“At Wit’s End,” the album’s proggy highlight) minutes, the record offers a fine balance of the new direction and the more expansive side fans have come to expect. The shorter numbers stand out the most, however, their brevity lending them urgency and power, particularly “Room 137,” driven a bouncy rhythm unlike anything we’ve heard from Dream Theater before. It’s also the first DT song with lyrics by Mangini, who’s been on board since 2010. Overall, it sounds as if Mangini has fully found his groove with the band, playing off the other musicians more fluidly and comfortably than he did on the three previous albums.
So maybe this isn’t quite the same Dream Theater I’ve been following since I heard “Pull Me Under” on the radio in 1992. It’s a modernized, more direct version of the band that should welcome back anyone turned off by “The Astonishing,” and it’s my favorite Dream Theater album since “Train of Thought” (2003).
(InsideOutMusic/Sony Music, February 22, 2019)